GARDNER – It was once the center of the community, a place where the magic of Hollywood was offered to anyone with a buck or two in their pocket. By the time J.R. Vinagro Corp. set up its excavating machine, the floors of the old Gardner Cinemas building were collapsing, there was a large hole through the roof above one theater and homeless people were living in condemned apartments in the front of the building.
Tuesday morning, crews began razing one section of the cement-block theater block at 34-40 Parker St. The main building, which is several stories high in the back, will be demolished next week, paving the way for a parking lot and park area.
Watching the demolition from Connors Street were movie fans of several generations. Each had a special memory of the two-screen theater once known as the Orpheum Theater.
Built in 1913, the building housed a movie theater from 1919 until it closed in 1999 when the Gardner Cinemas moved to Timpany Plaza.
“When I was a little kid, we’d come here for Saturday matinees,” recalled Rick Ladroga, an engineering consultant who got a chance to tour the building at the request of the owner after it was closed and decaying.
Mr. Ladroga said he recalls clearly the cherubs on the ceiling of the ornate main theater, and the ever-present smell of popcorn. He said his mother took him to see the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The last movie I saw was ‘Terminator’ in 1984,” he said. “I liked it so much I came back and watched it the next night.”
Standing with him on Connors Street, Bruce Mierzejewski fondly recalled sneaking in the back door of the theater with several friends. He said they would pool their money and one would buy a ticket, go in, and open the back door for the rest of them. He said the first movie he remembers seeing there was “Mary Poppins.”
One of the youngest people watching was 4-year-old Carter Ravish, who could not get enough of the big machine tearing down the building. His grandmother Cindy said she recalls seeing a movie in the theater when she was a teenager, but could not remember which one. She said she was interested in the demolition in part because her daughter works at a pizza business in a building next door.
Mike Clapper had vivid memories of the cinemas. He said one of the first films he saw there was “Roger Rabbit,” which his grandfather took him to in the 1980s.
“The last movie I saw was ‘Titanic,’ ” he said. “I was on a date.”
For Don Leblanc, 73, the movie theater was like a family business. He, his father and brother were all projectionists.
“We closed it down,” he said, explaining that the theater went non-union after it moved from downtown and he and his brother lost their jobs.
Mr. Leblanc said he was allowed to see most movies free when his father worked there, but not the big releases. When Elvis Presley’s “Loving You” came out, he had to pay.
Although Mr. Leblanc has good memories of the theater, he is glad it is being demolished.
“It’s time to come down,” he said. “It’s served its purpose.”
One of the odder stories about the theater involves the ghosts of the Gardner Cinema. Strange occurrences and occasional sightings of apparitions led people to claim the building was haunted by a woman named Alice. There may have also been a male ghost, whose footsteps, with one foot dragging, could be heard where the cellar of the building goes under the the sidewalk in front.
When the theater closed in 1999, apartments in the building remained occupied until a May 2007 fire caused substantial damage, leaving a gaping hole in the roof over one of the theaters. With the building open to the elements, decay set in. The building was condemned.
The tenants may not have been the last people living in the building. Ryan Billingsly, project supervisor for J.R. Viragro Corp., said when a crew went in to inspect the building, they found clothing and other items that indicated people were living in the building.
Mr. Billingsly said he has seen no sign of Alice, but heard about the ghost from city officials. In the building was a sign that read, “New America House Gardner, rooms $1.50 and $2 with bath.”
Athough the building has other structures within inches of it, Mr. Billingsly said, the project poses no major challenges.
“It’s just an old dilapidated building,” he said. “It’s condemned, so it is compromised.”
In October, the city bought the building from owner Salim Chowdhry for $88,000. Gardner Economic Development Coordinator Joshua Cormier said the cost of razing the building and disposing of the rubble is $617,000, of which nearly $500,000 will be paid for by a brownfields redevelopment grant. Because of floor collapses, some parts of the building were not cleared of asbestos and will have to be treated as contaminated. When the building is demolished, materials will be taken to a hazardous waste disposal site.